High Country Navigation – Maps And GPS

One of the main issues with planning for our Cruises is deciding where to go, which is always time of year and weather dependent, and then what tracks to follow given the time of year. This is never a simple task, as you can’t assume that tracks will be open or cleared after seasonal storms, so making unexpected changes on the move is always on the cards and being able to identify potential alternate routes is where good maps are essential. Over the years, I’ve collected numerous maps, both paper and electronic, to assist in planning and travels and, in the early years, before GPS and computer based maps, everything was done on paper maps and they are still quite a valuable tool. But all that was available back in the 70s were 1:100,000 National Topographic maps and some Forest Commission maps, and I still have a folder full of them (most of them 1966 datum); however, times have changed.

1:100,000 National Topographic Map and Compass

1:100,000 National Topographic Map and Compass

Back in the days of paper maps only, I used to highlight the tracks that I planned to take with a marker and then follow these while on the tracks, making adjustments as necessary. While the maps may have been reasonably accurate, when you entered a logging area in the High Country, you could quickly go off-track when you took a turn 100m from the actual turn and end up travelling way off the mark, all the while thinking this looked right. It wasn’t until the advent of affordable GPS units did this error prone travel planning improve somewhat, but not fully. The early GPS units only gave you coordinates, which you had to locate on your map and I well remember how poor was the signal reception of the early GPS units. Not only that, but in those days the GPS accuracy was limited to around 50-100m or worse, so you could and did easily still go off-track.

Forests Commission and National Topographic Maps

Forests Commission and National Topographic Maps

Over time, maps such as the Rooftop paper maps and electronic maps, as well as GPS units improved considerably, with the latter providing built-in maps showing you where you were. It was a time also when the GPS accuracy was improved with the US government removing the deliberate error forced onto GPS units, known as Selective Availability. This helped immensely while on the move, though you needed eagle eyes to read the tiny map screens on these early GPS units. The problem also with the built-in maps was that they weren’t updated very often and any updates that were provided, cost almost as much as the original GPS. But in conjunction with good paper maps and even out of date GPS maps, you were much better placed to find your location and not go too far, or too often, off-track.

Rooftop Maps

Rooftop Maps

Garmin eTrex Legend HCx GPS

Garmin eTrex Legend HCx GPS

This was also a time when GPS navigation (street navigation) started to pick up and both hand held and notebook/laptop systems became available, though at a pretty high cost. It meant that you now had devices with much larger screens and ones that provided directions, though none of the devices provided any form of off-road navigation initially. Off-road navigation has been somewhat of a lame duck in Australia, with many providers not interested in adding appropriate maps to their devices. I guess that’s understandable, given that the number of users is relatively small compared to the general population. That said, one of the first providers of such maps, perhaps inadvertently, was Nokia with their 6110 Navigator mobile phone. I bought one when it first came out (I still have it and it still works) and it was the first device that contained maps for every road and track in Australia, on or off-road. I once used it to take us back to our campsite in the High Country from a day drive while camping out. I think that Nokia, in many ways, started the revolution in personal navigation systems, especially as it came free with the phone and is still available as Here WeGo maps (no longer owned by Nokia).

Nokia 6110 Navigator and Nokia Lumia 630 mobile phones

Nokia 6110 Navigator and Nokia Lumia 630 mobile phones

From there things more or less snowballed and you finally had access to reasonable quality electronic maps for off-road navigation. This came by way of software and maps from the likes of OziExplorer, Hema, Garmin, Memory Map and others. Some of these required you to convert paper maps to images, while others provided electronic maps already converted to suit their systems. However, all of them were dependent on the quality, coverage and currency of available off-road maps. This was still the Achilles’ Heel of all off-road mapping systems and continues to be so even today, though there have been improvements. However, these new systems allowed you to use tablets, notebooks and laptops for navigation, providing much larger and more legible screens. This was especially important while on the move.

Gigabyte tablet navigation using Memory Map

Gigabyte tablet navigation using Memory Map

Of the four I mentioned, I have all of them and use them to various degrees. I especially use Memory Map and Hema maps for navigation while on a Cruise and Garmin BaseCamp and Garmin Topo Australia Maps (which are now woefully out of date) to mark out tracks when planning a Cruise. BaseCamp is brilliant as you just have to click on track junctions and it makes a route along the track, following the actual road or track, which can then be converted to a GPX file that’s readable by most navigation software (Memory Map in my case). This is far easier than what you need to do with other systems, where you have to plot the track more or less around every curve on the road or track. Unfortunately, Garmin no longer provides any Windows navigation software that allows you to navigate on a tablet or laptop using their maps, so Basecamp is only for trip planning. I also owned software called TUMAUS (The Ultimate Map of Australia) made by a company in New Zealand that still produces their version TUMONZ. It was singularity the best vector mapping software available, bar none.

Garmin Basecamp trip planning

Garmin Basecamp trip planning

Video – How Basecamp draws tracks

There are of course options like Google Maps, which does cover off-road tracks, but because of the way the maps are displayed, that is, the level of detail only appears as you zoom in, they aren’t ideal for off-road navigation where you usually need to see details while zoomed out. I’ve tried to plan Cruises using Google Maps on my PC and it just doesn’t work. Google Maps and just about every street navigator uses what are called vector maps. Vector maps are mathematical representations/calculations that effectively draw a map on the go vs a raster map that is simply an image of a paper map. Hema digital maps, for example, are raster maps and Garmin Topo Australia maps are vector maps. A more detailed explanation can be found here. The Google vector map below shows the Macalister River Track and Butcher Country Track junction (in the centre of the map), but this only becomes visible after zooming in quite significantly (click on the + sign). On the other hand, the Memory Map raster map shows the junction quite clearly, along with a lot more detail of the surrounding area. As a side note, TUMAUS would show detail like a raster map and allowed you to decide when the detail would appear, it was absolutely fantastic.

Raster map of Macalister River Track and Butcher Country Track junction

Raster map of Macalister River Track and Butcher Country Track junction

So at the end of the day, both GPS and paper maps are very important for planning and navigating one of our Cruises, but It’s unfortunate that in Australia we don’t have the luxury of off-road mapping that the likes of the US government seems to provide, where you can get very good paper and digital maps that are constantly updated. I know that satellite imagery is taken all year round over Australia to update mapping data, but much of that doesn’t appear to be used as part of a systematic update process for off-road users. And it’s kind of odd that many on-road navigation devices provide lifetime updates for street maps, which makes you wonder what the impediments are for doing the same with off-road maps.

As an aside, this is my 200th post, so I’m rather chuffed that I’ve managed to get so far since my first tentative and perhaps bewildered steps in 2014.

2 thoughts on “High Country Navigation – Maps And GPS

  1. Shawn K.

    Ha! I’m currently consulting my map room prior to leaving on a trip shortly. “I want to hike slot canyons!” turned into, “It’s going to be how hot? No way!”, so we’re heading to the mountains instead. Always good to have some alternate plans in the back of my mind, and the maps to make it happen.

    An odd phenomenon in the U.S. is the inclusion of high clearance, 4WD trails on road GPS databases. I think that happens because many former industrial roads from logging and mining fall under governmental control, and are assigned a formal name that falls in a state highway system. I find it very helpful because I intend to drive on those trails, but many people blindly follow wherever the GPS leads, occasionally to tragic ends.

    http://www.otherhand.org/home-page/search-and-rescue/the-hunt-for-the-death-valley-germans/

    http://www.sacbee.com/entertainment/living/travel/article2573180.html

    I’ve also read of people driving to the north rim of Grand Canyon looking for the bridge to the other side, but I think that was the result of poor map reading skills.

    Are there similar tales of Death-by-GPS in Australia?

    Reply
    1. Ray Post author

      Not so much death by GPS, but death by ignorance and/or recklessness. Far too many tourists have died in the Outback because they had no understanding of the harshness of the environment and the distances and remoteness involved. It’s also due to a complete lack of preparedness and then when things go wrong, they do the wrong thing, such as leaving their vehicle. An EPIRB should be mandatory for anyone going into the Outback, especially solo.

      Reply

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